Most people who would consider themselves “radical” in a specific sense usually didn’t become “radicals” overnight. It’s a slow process that can take years. And one day you find yourself wondering “how did this happen?”
I’ve been wondering about this for quite some time now. Somehow, between 2010, when I started cycling to work every day, and today, I’ve become a radical. Not in the sense you might imagine if you’re a die-hard motorist, though: I drive conciously, often very asserting, and certainly a bit cheekily, but I try very hard to do this within the boundaries of our “road code” which has the very poetic name “StVO” or “Straßenverkehrsordnung”. The problems actually start right here: In contrast to the many many motorists I run into conflict with every day, I know the relevant parts of the road code very well. It’s a very common phenomenon as a cyclist in Hamburg to be yelled at for basically doing exactly what the law wants you to do. Or to be yelled at for telling a motorist that she or he just violated the road code in a very dangerous and reckless manner.
As you can imagine, this is a very frustrating experience. One that I, as an individual, can’t do a hell lot about, with the notable exception of simply stopping to cycle, which is, as you might imagine, not really an option. Which makes it even worse.
I am a big fan of Copenhagen, the Danish capital. My crush was in place way before I became a daily cyclist, so it’s not just the fact that CPH treats cyclists as first class traffic members and probably has world’s best cycling infrastructure. Copenhagen is a wonderful city, bustling with energy, but at the same time quite relaxed. International but small. And, above all, it is a city that feels, in many parts, like a city built for humans and not for cars.
I’ve just finished reading the German edition of “Cities for People” by Jan Gehl, a danish architect who is responsible for the start of the Copenhagen “revolution” - He advised the city to build one of the first pedestrian areas ever, the “Strøget”, now Europe’s longest pedestrian zone. It is a great book, and if you’re somewhat into city planning and/or architecture, I can’t recommend it enough.
Getting more and more frustrated with the way my home town treats cyclists, I’ve started to look to cities like Copenhagen to see what makes them different (apart from the very apparent differences in infrastructure). One guy who can explain this very well is Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO of Copenhagenize, a design firm that helps other cities to learn from the Copenhagen model. His TedX talk does a pretty good job of explaining how so many cities around the world became, due to the rise of the popularity of the car, hostile places. And also how cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam were able to reverse at least part of that toxic change and made their cities more friendly to humans again.
The problem is, the more you know about all of this, the more angry you get. The fact that my city is not able to keep motorists from using bike lanes as parking spots makes me angry. The fact that my city is not able to keep the bike lanes free of snow as good as the roads makes me angry. The fact that the majority of bike lanes are too narrow and often broken beyond repair makes me angry. Not only because it is a nuisance on my daily commute, but also because I know that this keeps a lot of people from cycling in the first place. And because it clearly indicates to me that cyclists are, against all publicly displayed intent, not a priority.
A few other examples: One of the most important projects of cycling infrastructure in Hamburg are the new cycle routes around the outer Alster. This is important, because, as the Alster lies in the middle of the city, large parts of commuter traffic somehow has to go around that big fat lake. The actual implementation was flawed (and will hopefully be corrected) but even more terrible was the public outcry of Hamburgian conservatives. A member of the conservative party CDU cried out against the “car-hostile” policies of our local government. Now think about that for a moment. “car-hostile”? Cars are things, right? Last time I checked, most of them didn’t actually have feelings. But that goes to show the actual ideologies in place here. A famous Hamburgian entrepreneur (Who, ta-da, actually lives in Switzerland. I guess mostly because the air is better. Yeah, right) called Klaus-Michael Kühne, who currently builds a new hotel at the Alster rallied against the cycle routes claiming that cycling is all fine and dandy, but you should do it in your spare time and in the country side. Now, he’s almost 80 and a billionaire, so I do understand that he has some trouble to see cycling as a mode of transportation. He probably has problems with public transport as well.
And our beloved mayor, Olaf Scholz, in a somewhat bold move, gave an interview to the german cyclists association (ADFC) right before the election, stating at one point that “you should not play out cars against cycles”. Someone should have told him that due to laws of physics and basic geometry, that probably won’t work out in the long run. Now, I do understand him. Election period. Don’t anger the already pretty angry motorists (Hamburg is terrible to drive by car, I do admit that. Lots of parallel construction sites on important large roads, due to decades of neglect of public infrastructure).
But like I said, there’s more to it than just feeling neglegted as a cyclist. Because, the more I know about how city planning should work according to the architects who made Copenhagen the “most livable city in the world” a few times in a row, I more or less feel neglected as a human. With the rise of the Automobile, we’ve turned our cities into hostile environments. I used to grow up in this already (although it certainly got worse in the last ~40 years), so I’ve never fully realized that until I really thought about it. My father, born in the aftermath of WW2 and thus mostly raised in the rubble of a pretty well destroyed residential area, spent most of his time on his own with his friends, outside on the streets. For most families in modern large cities, this is unthinkable in 2014 - Too dangerous and maybe even too unhealthy as well. For most kids today in elementary school it seems to be impossible to go or drive to school on their own. Mind you, there may be additional mechanisms at play with parents being more paranoid than the previous generation about their children’s safety, but our city definitely also became a much more dangerous place.
Think about that. Our cities are too dangerous to actually “use” them. Does that sound healthy and sane to you?
Just take a look (Google Streetview) into a typical small (two way) street in a Hamburgian residential area, such as the Heußweg (which is very close to my home and I have to take it quite often). Cars after cars after cars parking at the sidelines. Most of them legally. What do you do when you need to urgently deliver something in this street? Do you find a parking spot? Allow me to answer that with a short “ha. haha.”. So you park in the second row, or, put more aptly: In the middle of the street. Soon you’ll have a row of cars behind you, some of them honking… (Do you see the green lorry in the backhground and the red car overtaking? Exactly like that). Now, this part of the Heußweg actually has pretty spacy sidewalks (although you’ll find all sorts of obstacles, like trash bins, bike racks etc.), but you can clearly see how much of the street is occupied by cars (Mostly cars that are not moving) and how little space is left for people. Every single street in every residential area in Hamburg looks like this. I don’t know about you, but I find this appaling. Not only because of the obvious waste of space and resources depicted, but simply because a heap of cars on the sidelines isn’t a very pleasing sight. And my beloved Heußweg is orderly with, as I said, spacy sidewalks. A few streets further, you will find sidewalks where cars park so far into them that it sometimes is impossible to use the sidewalk with a stroller.
Now, as a cyclist, this street is outright dangerous. if you drive too close to the parking cars, chances are that you’ll end up in a door sooner or later. If you drive closer to the middle (as I do), you risk being overtaken needlessly close, probably paired with a nice honk and also probably 20 metres before the next traffic light, where the road code requires me as a cyclist to slowly overtake the cars again. Repeat. Also, overtaking illegally parked lorries is a nerve wrecking process.
Jan Gehl, in one of the first chapters of the book, formulates what city planners should have regarded as fact for the last 40 years: The more roads and parking spots you create, the more cars will come to the city. The only way to reduce the number of cars in the city is reducing the space available to cars. I do realize that this is a painful process. But it is one that needs to be started (and has been started in Hamburg at least in some places) but also needs to be accelerated and backed up with constant improvement of alternatives (bike lanes, but also public transit), because this is one of the major things that will make our cities a safer and more healthy place to live again.
I know that these processes take time (it took Copenhagen 40 years to get from a car centric city to the urban planners and cyclists dream) and I know that I am way to impatient, but the least I think we need to do now is to have open, honest up to date discussions on what urban planning in 2014 should look like. Not with polemics but with data (because the data exists), with patience, empathy and compassion. And of course, with a focus on the inhabitants, the humans, the people.
Jan Gehl’s Book closes with a quote by his mentor, Ralph Erskine (translated from german by me):
You need to love people to be a good architect, since architecture is an applied artform and deals with the general conditions of human life.
Jan Gehl closes this off with:
It’s really that simple.
I think you should extend this to any person dealing with urban planning, from a city planner in the city administration to the politicians who have to set the guidelines for urban planning policy.
And that’s how I became a radical. Not a radical cyclist, but a radical citizen of my home town, who is sick and tired of being treated as an afterthought. As a cyclist, but even more important, as a human.
(The header image, btw. is a quick panorama I’ve shot at recently renovated space surrounding a metro station. Despite the fact that during the whole renovation the whole space was crammed with parked cycles the planners did not think about radically increase the number of bike racks. Which results in an unsurprisingly large number of wildly parked cycles. Missed chance. Again. And. Again.)
(UPDATE: I’ve updated the article twice since publishing to correct some typos and weird sentences)